Without going into details, I had a conversation about the possibility of doing training related to Accessibility and Inclusive Design. I've given talks about these topics and I've delivered workshops on them as well but I've always done so from the perspective of a software tester. Granted, that provides a lot of focus on advocacy but more times than not, it really comes down to "Here's what Accessibility is, here's why it's important, and here is how you can test for it."
I am realizing that there is a much bigger conversation we could be having here and with many more people. Since I keep saying I want to focus on Accessibility going forward, maybe I should put my money where my mouth is and go on record with some things. Maybe this could become the basis for a book, a training course, or some other set of strategies that we could use and leverage. Maybe this will give me a chance to talk out some ideas while I'm in that in-between phase of being gainfully employed and in what capacity. So if you will indulge me, I'm going to embark on a series of articles surrounding my thoughts on what I would say if I were to be your Accessibility Coach and Trainer.
Ready? Let's go!
Every first module in training tends to start with a definition so that we can all be talking from the same place and with the same ideas. To that end, I have historically focused on digital Accessibility but of course, true Accessibility goes well beyond the digital realm.
If we are serious about delivering Accessibility, we should start with the premise that Accessibility means we (collectively) work to create a world and an environment where everyone, regardless of their visual, auditory, cognitive, or mobility abilities, can fully participate in and enjoy all aspects of a meaningful and purposeful life. A bit heavy? Maybe but work with me here. Are we looking to say that we wish any less for those of us who are not blessed with the genetic lottery or have through no fault of our own had to deal with a physical or mental impairment? We live in a world where, too often, the normative folks get to have all the perks of their situation, while those who have disabilities often get second-level consideration, if they receive any consideration at all.
Accessibility simply means we need to work to remove barriers that prevent people with disabilities from interacting with and enjoying the opportunities that life offers us. The first step in doing that is understanding that there is a divide between those who are fully able-bodied (or the phrase I like to use, "normative") and those who need some adaptations to participate at the same levels. What is seen as normative is often the path of least resistance. If any effort due to physical issues has to go into doing something, then that may often be the first line of focus to see what and why that is the case. Also, let's not kid ourselves, normative is often crowd-sourced and broadly agreed upon. Over time, disabilities get focused on or dismissed because enough people pay attention to them and it becomes an everyday part of life.
If the community of Crossfit enthusiasts was to, for example, become the litmus test for the normative, we would see a lot more people suddenly identifying with and feeling as though they were dealing with disabilities. Seems a stretch, right? No pun intended here. My point is that normative is what people agree it is and the broader the population agrees with that, the more likely it will just be a standard part of life for those people who qualify.
Normative people don't have to think about if the world is built for them.
It just is, by default.
For those who have a significant disability (whether it be a chronic and permanent situation or one in which we find ourselves temporarily inhabiting) we start to see the world differently.
Focusing on Accessibility means that we aim to identify barriers that could or would prevent people from accessing and enjoying the experiences and opportunities that others have, and then work to remove or at least mitigate those barriers.
In terms of the physical world, we see accommodations such as ramps leading into buildings that allow wheelchairs or walkers the ability to move effectively. We see and feel braille in items such as check-out kiosks and ATM machines, crossing signals, etc. We see closed captioning for the hearing impaired. All of these are accommodations that we have come to expect and consider part of everyday life but many places and organizations are not set up for this. In many ways, that is understandable. It would be tremendously expensive to retrofit every home to be accessible for everyone but we don't hesitate to make those accommodations when we are the ones that have to use them ourselves.
I had the chance to experience this firsthand back in 2011 and again in 2013 due to a severe tibia break that had me unable to walk for an extended period. My house became a nightmare to navigate. My upstairs area was effectively off-limits to me for six weeks. On the occasion I needed to go upstairs, I had to literally sit on each stair and hoist myself via triceps extension, and shuffling to get to each stair. I recognized that, was I to have been in this position for a more permanent reason, the house would have to be retrofitted with a stair lift of some kind, or I'd have to accept the fact that I would lose access to anything happening upstairs in a meaningful way.
Why did I walk you through that? I did that because at times that's what it takes for us to come to grips with the fact that what works for us one day may not work for us another and at some point what we took for granted as an everyday experience may not be available to us AT ALL at some point. In physical spaces, this can be a real challenge. In digital spaces, we have a lot more flexibility in the nature of how products are designed. The barriers to accommodation and accessibility are much lower.
At the digital product level, accessibility means we take into account the various ways in which people can, or can't, interact with devices like computers (and applications, websites, etc.), smartphones, and the media which is produced for each of those. Think of people who are completely blind or have any number of reduced vision issues. Think of those who are deaf or have hearing loss. Think of people who have moderate to profound mobility issues, everything from rheumatoid arthritis to full limb paralysis or absence. Also, there are a variety of cognitive challenges people can face and they can especially become apparent as people age.
One key area people often miss when talking about accessibility is that it is too often framed around people with chronic or persistent disabilities. Yes, it is absolutely important we consider them in our design choices. It would be in my mind literally immoral not to. However, accessibility often benefits completely normative users in a variety of mundane situations. Have you ever been to a concert and received a phone call? Hard to talk with a sound system at full volume. Also, kind of hard to take that call if you have no real effective means to move to a quieter place. Here's where the ability of your phone to handle texts is not just a change of application but it's also an accessibility hack. "Oh, you can't hear me? I understand. Then let me text you instead." Accessibility in action :).
It can be as simple as TikTok including captioning by default or making it so that captioning is available. Many times I have found myself in situations where I am seeing a video but I am not in an environment where I can readily hear what is being said. With captioning, I can work with that and read what the person is saying without having to hear their voice.
Here's my quick and dirty definition of and the importance of Accessibility, what it is, and why we might want to care about it. Next time, I'll go into a little more depth on the history of Accessibility, how we got where we are, and how we might go forward from here.